News, University News

Lynn Nottage’86 talks second Pulitzer Prize win Drama

Lynn Nottage discussed her award winning drama, “Sweat,” and her experiences at Brown.

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2017

Lynn Nottage ’86 won her second Pulitzer Prize in Drama this April for her play “Sweat,” which explores the stories of a group of steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Nottage spoke to The Herald in an exclusive interview on her way to Reading.

Herald: How does it feel to just have won a Pulitzer Prize?

Nottage: I was mostly excited for the entire ensemble. Everyone has really worked hard on the play. It was such a collective award.

What inspired “Sweat”?

The real impetus was trying to understand how economic stagnation is reshaping our country. I wanted to find a story that was really representative of what was happening on a larger scale. I encountered a group of steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania, and they had a story that I found to be incredibly moving. The story which was all too familiar, but it was not one that everyone knew and understood.

What are you working on now?

Sweat is a transmedia project. The first part being this play — “Sweat” — the second part, which is equally important part, is a team of collaborators that are building a multimedia performance installation in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s a railroad station that’s going to tell the stories of people in Reading. It’s going to be a celebration of that city today, and one of the things I want to do as an artist is not to simply be a carpet beggar — go in and poach a story and leave — but I wanted to show a commitment to a city that is really fractured economically and racially to refind a narrative and to heal. Now, in particular, we are living in a moment in which our country feels very divided; I thought “How do we move beyond words and actually begin to take action together?” The goal of the installation is to really place people shoulder to shoulder who wouldn’t necessarily stand together and to have them see a glimpse of each other’s lives and figure out how to build empathy. I think that’s one of the things that’s lacking in the country right now — empathy.

What did your time at Brown lend to your career?

I think Brown is really where I began to find myself as a playwright. I was fortunate enough to study with several really incredible playwriting professors including George Bass, James Sevu, and Paula Vogel. They were really key in me beginning to find my voice. I’m sure in many ways that my DNA as a writer is rooted in my experiences at Brown. Paula Vogel was the first woman I had studied with, which actually made a huge impression because up until then playwriting was really under the domain of men. Paula opened the door and showed me there are women in this field who can thrive and write at very high levels. She pushed me to apply for the Yale School of Drama, which wasn’t something I had even been thinking about. I applied and got in, and that was the beginning of my playwriting career.

Can you teach good writing?

I teach graduate students writing at Columbia. Our goal is not to teach good writing; our goal is to give students certain tools they can use. You can’t give people talent. But you can inspire them to go deeper and write expansively and to be more adventurous.

Who are some of your favorite playwrights?

Today, we are in a golden age of playwriting, and there are so many amazing young writers who I look to for inspiration. Now is a fantastic time to go to the theatre.

What does your writing process look like?

It varies depending on the project. In the case of “Sweat,” because it was a longer exploration, the play took more time. I was researching it and entering into a territory that wasn’t necessarily indigenous to my imagination. I had to spend time getting to know people. As a result, the research process took a long time but the actual process of writing did not. Once I decided what I want to say the act of getting it onto the page, for me, is very quick.

How did you begin writing?

From some form or another, I have always been a writer. I began crafting little dramas for my parents in their living room. I think those dramas over the course of time just became more and more elaborate.

What is your advice for aspiring playwrights at Brown?

I’ll give you a piece of advice August Wilson gave to me. It’s going to sound very simple, but, as you get older, you will resonate more with the words as a writer: “A writer writes.” You have to keep continuing to explore the craft. It’s really about making a commitment to doing that.

As the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama twice, are you personally making strides to inspire young women?

I hope I inspire. I hope it serves as a source of inspiration for young women who want to go into playwriting. We can continue to shatter the glass ceiling. Up until now, it’s been a struggle. Hopefully, young women will see what I’ve been able to accomplish, and, instead of taking a detour to going into playwriting, they might sit down at a desk and write a play.